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The Mystery of Durban’s Signature Dish Bunny Chow

Bunny chow
Bunny chow | © Hammersmith and Fulham Council/ Flickr
Bunny chow is in Durban’s DNA. It’s been a classic dish to the city since the 1940s, but how it came to be is shrouded in mystery. Culture Trip traces the stories behind its inception.

A hulled-out white bread that’s filled with a selection of different curries and beans and often served with grated carrot, chilli and onion salad, bunny chow isn’t for the peckish. This calorie-intensive meal comprises a quarter loaf of bread, so it’s designed to keep you going.

The secret to great bunny chow is its accompaniments © Siyabonga Mkhasibe

For this reason, so goes the story that it was created during Apartheid for indentured Indian labourers, who were brought to work in KwaZulu-Natal’s sugarcane fields. This dish, which takes its name from the caste of Indian businessmen who sold the curry, ‘bania’, and slang for food, ‘chow’, could yield energy for a full day’s work. Plus, it was cheap to make and designed to be eaten with the hands – with the idea being that you start from the ‘virgin’ scooped-out bread at the top and end at the gravy-soaked bottom – so it just needed to be wrapped up in paper.

Another theory around its beginnings is that it was a mess-free alternative to roti and beans. As the law during Apartheid forbade people of colour entering restaurants and cafés, instead people were subjected to ordering meals from the side or back doors of restaurants. Being a thin wheat naan, roti fell apart. This meant people got creative and began using loaves of bread as take-out containers – scooping them out and filling them with the bean curry.

Bunny chow isn’t for the faint-hearted © Siyabonga Mkhasibe

Some argue that bunny chow was invented for the Indian caddies at the Royal Durban Golf Course. It’s said that the caddies were unable to get off from work for long enough to eat their lunches in the Indian area in Durban’s central business district, Grey Street, so friends bought in curry from the city. With no access to take-out containers, said friends looked to hollowed-out loaves of bread.

Elsewhere, rumours abound that it was created by a chef at the Queen’s Tavern, while others claim it was created at a restaurant called Kapitan’s on the corner of Victoria and Albert Street in Durban.

Chef Prenolan Naidoo’s bunny chow received an accolade in 2018 © Siyabonga Mkhasibe

We’ll never know the full truth, but one thing is known: bunny chow will live on as a Durban icon.